Christmas Eve has always been one of the most magical nights of the year, a feeling, I am certain, that blossomed when I was an impressionable toddler.
It has never faded, even as my feelings about Christmas itself have grown increasingly conflicted.
Christmas Eve is all about light and anticipation. Although it is not the longest night of the year, it is close, just minutes shorter than the nights that come before it. As a child I sensed this, but then the anticipation was about all the presents that would appear under the tree on Christmas morning.
Over the years I have come to believe that this visceral anticipation is encoded in our genes, a gift of our earliest ancestors who struggled for signs that life-giving sunlight would return. The holiday as we know it did not create the longing; rather, it claimed an innate human hunger as its own.
On Christmas Eve, my mother allowed the Christmas lights to be on all day; on other days, they were not turned on until nightfall.
Christmas Eve was all about Santa, too, of course, though I didn't play the game as long as my mother would have liked.
I think I was just 5 when I decided the whole thing was a ruse. I gave up my belief easily and with a fair degree of relief. I had never warmed to the idea of a man who could see me any time at all and who knew everything I did. It wasn't that I was worried he would find my behavior wanting, not at all. I was a good kid. Rather, I wanted my privacy.
Whenever he appeared on television, I would hide behind the couch, thinking it might make me harder to see. One of the many pleasures of Christmas Eve was that Santa was occupied, too busy to spend his time watching me.
Yet for years, I went along with cookies and milk, setting a thank-you note alongside because it pleased my mother.
My grandparents came to our house for Christmas Eve dinner each year, which always began in exactly the same way, with cream cheese and garlic dip, chips and big bowls of nuts in their shells. I loved the slender silver nut picks that I used to extract the meat of my favorite, Brazil nuts.
The table included pretty platters filled with the handmade candies -- colorful fondants, divinity, fudge and, my favorite, penuche -- that my mother began making in early fall.
When it came to dinner, there was no traditional menu and the only meals I remember were those that included Dungeness crab, usually served hot with garlic butter but now and then served chilled with cocktail sauce and Louis dressing. It remains my favorite indulgence on this night.
After dinner, I helped with dessert, setting what were called snow balls on the prettiest glass plates in the cupboard. Snow balls consisted of white cake filled with ice cream, slathered with vanilla frosting and then rolled in coconut. On top were bright green holly leaves and three deep scarlet holly berries made of frosting. In the center was a candle holder with a red candle.
After the candles were lit, I turned out all the lights but those of the Christmas tree and carried the snowballs one by one into the living room, where we always had dessert.